The Greedy Dog – Gestures, Postures and Emotions Portraying Degrees of Vice and Virtue in the Sixteenth-Century Iyār-i Dānish

An outstanding illustration preserved as a detached folio in the Chicago Art Museum, attributed to the Mughal artist Farrukh Chela, illustrates the fable of the ‘Greedy Dog’ which forms one of the significant narratives from the Iyār-i Dānish,1 a collection of stories written by Emperor Akbar’s historian and confidant, Abul Fazl, and illustrated in 1595–1600.

The Greedy Dog, Abul Fazl’s Iyār-i Dānish, Mughal, c. 1595–1600 attributed to Farrukh Chela (active 1580–1604), Art Institute, Chicago. Artwork in the public domain, photograph provided by Art Institute Chicago.

The image is an illustrated rendering of the Persian story inserted into a rectangular box in the upper left corner of the folio.

تا ایمن زید هر چند در فواید عفت تامل بیش کردم رغبت من در افزونی بود اما می ترسیدم که از سر شهوات بر خاستن و لذت نقد را پشت پا زدن کاری است بس دشوار و شروع در آن کردن خطری بزرگ چه اگر حجابی در راه افتد نه کار ظاهر شناخته باشد و نه راه معنی بسر برده زیان کاری و باطنی روی دهد همچنان آن سگ که بر لب جوی استخوانی یافت و در دهان گرفت و عکس آن در آب دید.

So to live with safety, I however, reflected more on the benefits of modesty. I was inclined to aggrandizement. But I was afraid that to rise above lust and waive the pleasure of cash in hand was a difficult task. To embark on that project is a great peril. If the road is murky, neither the apparent nor the hidden is visible, it leads to invisibility and loss as similar to the dog that finds a bone on the edge of the canal, holds it in his mouth and looks at its reflection on the water.2

The text contains a lesson in self-restraint. The author skilfully alludes to the notion of ظاهر (zāhir – outwardness) and باطن (bātin – inwardness), a set of binaries applied distinctly in Persian literature to distinguish between macrocosm and microcosm. The sky (outside) represents the macrocosm, and refers to one of the elements, wind (باد), in Persian literary lexicon. The word ‘باد’ (bād) meant more than an ability to blow; it stood for unpredictability, and the ravages of destiny that could blow through the lives of man and alter his fate and fortune. Air (هوا) denoted microcosm, and stood for desire, lust and impulse (هوس). The air, هوا (hawā) which is contained inside man, was not only the source of هوس (havas) or tempest, but was easily affected and influenced by the outer environment. The author draws attention to the conflict between the winds of destiny and man’s lust or greed, which had an effect on his fate and fortune. The text further alludes to the dark, ominous, hidden path, which remained veiled inside man—the unseen tempest, over which he had no control, and which ultimately played havoc with his destiny. 

In the story, a hungry dog finds a bone by a canal. As he grabs the bone in his mouth, he sees his own reflection in the waters of the canal. Thinking that he was looking at the reflection of another dog, holding another bone in his mouth, the idea of aggrandization illuminates the dog’s consciousness (which remained veiled inside him), causing him to transform his fate and fortune (as he loses the real bone in order to get the imaginary one). Thus, the story of the greedy dog served as a metaphor for drawing parallels between the fate of the hungry dog and the fate of man, who, seduced by the lure of glorification, and unable to trample upon this impulse, transforms his destiny by falling victim to his greed.

The Mughal artist used a high degree of stylistic sophistication to translate the rich, philosophical context into an astounding image. A bridge, located in front of the lower right half of the folio, leads onto a path towards the built architecture of a grand city, now lying in ruins and abandoned by its inmates. The scene captures the moment just before the dog, contemplating upon his fortune and fate, releases the bone from his mouth, in order to claim the one existing in the reflection. Contrasting the figure of the well-fed Afghan hound with a curly tail, bent forward in excitement and lured by his reflection to grab a bigger portion of meat; the figure of a lean and hungry dog is shown slinking away (perhaps alluding to the state of the dog after losing the bone), with his tail straightened behind him, walking defeatedly upon the bridge. The impending loss of the bone and the subsequent despair is captured in the contrasting body language between the two versions of the dog, achieved by the artist’s mastery over depicting gestures, postures and emotions for portraying degrees of vice and virtue.

Detailed view from The Greedy Dog, showing the dog and his reflection next to a bridge in front of an abandoned city. Artwork in the public domain, photograph provided by Art Institute Chicago.

The artist has used shades and tones of earthy browns to reveal the haunted look of a city in ruins. This particular treatment is referred as nim qalam, a technique made popular in the last decade of the sixteenth century and in fashion during the early decade of the seventeenth century. The method required the artist to use a minimum colour palette, meant to achieve the ‘look’ of European prints.3 Although scholars have sought to trace the process of nim qalam to European prints which served as models for Mughal artists, it is important to note that the artist achieved this effect by using the medium of water-based colours, a medium and technique vastly different from the process of engraving and etching used by North-European artists. To be a master of the process, an artist had to apprentice and train under an ustād (master) for several years, following in the Persian tradition of the transmission of knowledge from a master to his disciple.4 Any innovation by an individual artist had to remain confined within the canon of Indo-Persian painting. Thus, the Mughal artist’s achievement in arriving at such high degrees of artistic sophistication was more than merely ‘imitating’ the style of European prints; it was contingent upon the artist’s skill, control and mastery over water colour painting. No doubt, the effect of highlight, depth, tones and shades seen in the European prints invited emulation, as they offered effective tools with which to convey emotions, moods and animation upon the figures of protagonists shown in the illustration.

In the folio examined above, the artist successfully translated the moral lesson inscribed in the text with a suitable artistic vocabulary achieved by his mastery over idea, form, method, medium and material. Thus, the dissemination of written materials that occurred through memorization and oral transmission had now an informed audience, who could read the inscribed text and savour the poetic lyricism, depicting pathos and dramatization, captured by Farrukh Chela in the magnificent image.

The fable of the Greedy Dog is thus important for my Bilderfahrzeuge project at the IBO. Here, I research meanings, intentions and ideas concealed in Mughal paintings that evidence transcultural encounters between Central Asia and Mughal India. My study, analysis and interpretation of images and inscribed texts that often-accompanied pictorial compositions, provides an entry into the intellectual matrix of the Mughal elite, and helps identify the impact of Persian Sufism on image-making practices in Mughal art. In addition, the poetics between text and image provides a methodology for examining Mughal paintings contextualised within its own cultural practices, such as in classical Persian poetry, literature and philosophy. To overcome labels of ‘influence’, ‘derivations’, or ‘progress’ that dominate studies of the relationship between Mughal and European art and to address limitations inherent in the imposition of categories in the study of images, I explore the new methodological approaches of transmateriality and transmediality for my study. Further, by applying a globalizing perspective for examining processes of production, contexts of meaning and re-interpretation of artworks, I examine the ability of Mughal artists for introducing affective gestures, postures, emotion and dramatization in their compositions.

  1. The Iyār-i Dānish was a collection of animal fables, whose tales served as an educational ‘mirror for princes’ for Mughal emperors. It was translated from an earlier version composed in Timurid Herat (present day Afghanistan) during the fifteenth century, and was illustrated multiple times by Mughal artists during the final quarter of the sixteenth century. []
  2. The Persian text and its meaning were translated under the guidance of Prof Syed Akhtar Husain. []
  3. For a detailed study of the Mughal artist’s response to European prints see Yael Rice, ‘The Brush and the Burin, Mughal Encounters with European Engravings’, in J. Anderson (ed.), Crossing Cultures: Conflict, Migration & Convergence: Proceedings of the 32nd Congress of the International Committee of the History of Art (Melbourne, 2009), 305–310. []
  4. Mika Natif has elaborated on the traditional transmission of knowledge from a master to his pupil in context of emulating the works of earlier masters and the use of European models in Mughal paintings in her book Mughal Occidentalism, Artistic Encounters between Europe and Asia at the Courts of India, 1580–1630, Studies in Persian Cultural History 15 (Leiden, 2017), 70–84. []

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Dipanwita Donde

Dipanwita Donde completed her PhD in Visual Studies, specializing in Mughal Art, from School of Arts and Aesthetic, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi in 2017. Dipa received the SYLFF fellowship, the SRA fellowship for research abroad and the Nehru Memorial Trust fellowship during the period of her PhD research. She studied Persian, particularly medieval Persian poetry under Prof. Syed Akhtar Husain. She spent one year as a subject expert, art historical researcher and co-curator of an exhibition of Indian miniature paintings at Staatliche Kunstammlungen Dresden, Germany. She has delivered several lectures and participated in seminars and conferences, including Kupferstich-Kabinett, Dresden; York University, Toronto; Indian Institute of Persian Studies, Mumbai and Kolkata; India International Centre, New Delhi; and International Conference on Greek Studies, JNU. She has contributed her writings as special writer and subject expert to “The Body Ideal: Heroic” in The Body in Indian Art and Thought, Ministry of Culture-ICCR, Europalia 2013 Her essay was published in the exhibition catalogue, Miniature Geschiten Die Malerei Im Dresden Kupferstich-Kabinett, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden and was reprinted in the www.criticalcollective.in. Dipa has spent 18 months as the manager in the Department of Collection, Management and Research of Indian Modern Art at the Delhi Art Gallery, New Delhi, 2017-2018.

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